In France it is known as la Marée Noir, the “Black Tide.” The waves of oil that are rushing to choke the shorelines of Louisiana are well-known to the residents of the Galician coast of Spain and the shores of southwestern France where I used to live.
It was there in 2002 that the giant oil tanker Prestige broke apart in rough seas, a nightmare that would bring death to more than 20,000 birds and other wildlife, a nightmare that would spell destruction to the fishing and tourism industries for years afterward.
Living near Bordeaux at the time, I witnessed the results of the disaster first hand. For those concerned about the effects of the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, past tanker calamities such as the Prestige and the 1989 wreck of the Exxon Valdez are instructive; they help us understand the magnitude of the damage such accidents can have on a region’s habitat, and the dangerous consequences of insufficient government regulation and political wrangling.
When the Prestige began leaking, some 250 km off the northwestern tip of the Iberian Peninsula, it was carrying 77,000 tons of oil. The ship foundered as 125 tons of bilious grease poured daily through cracks in the hull while the governments of Spain, Portugal and France argued whether to allow the wreck to be towed into port for repair.
Within a week the ship broke in two. The first signs of the catastrophe quickly appeared across more than 1000 km of coastline from the north of Portugal and the Galician coast to southwest France. A flotilla of Spanish and French fishing vessels was called into action in an attempt to swab the coastal waters. Nets that had once caught tuna and shrimp now trawled for floating masses of toxic, emulsified fuel oil and dead marine life.
For months afterward, crews of salvage workers, military personnel and volunteers from areas touched by the spill landed on beaches to sift the globs of slimy debris – referred to as galettes (pancakes) by the French – and to clean blackened shore birds. The accident occurred during November, which is the height of the migration season for birds that nest in France, Scotland and the United Kingdom. The area closest to the site of the wreck, Galicia and the Cantabric coasts, were winter homes to large colonies of razorbills, gannets, puffins and other species that would come to partake of the hospitable environment and abundant supply of food.
It would take three months before authorities declared that salvage crews had succeeded in patching the key escapes from the sunken oiler, which rested on the sea bed 4000 meters down; using a combination of remotely operated submersible vehicles and specially designed aluminum containers it would take another two years of painstaking work to pump out as much of the remaining oil as possible.
Authorities say the underwater rig now spilling 5,000 barrels of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico could foul thousands of miles of coastline and decimate 20 national wildlife refuges. The region is on the flight path of more than 70 percent of the country’s waterfowl, including the brown pelican, now in its nesting season on Breton Island, Louisiana. Wildlife experts say sea turtles, manatees, Gulf sturgeon and other species could all be in the cross hairs.
As the reports of the BP rig explosion in the Gulf came in last week, I was reminded of how I walked the beaches of the Gironde region near Bordeaux in 2002 assisting in the cleanup, feeling the oil beneath my feet. I knew it would forever change the way in which I thought about fossil fuels.
Indications are that the Obama administration is moving quickly to address the Gulf disaster. Reacting to a growing chorus of critics that have already begun to label the oil spill “Obama’s Katrina,” the White House is traveling to the region on Sunday with a small team, promising a small presidential “footprint.” Administration officials have said that the president may re-examine his recent proposals for expanded offshore drilling on the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf and other areas.
Aside from the much criticized anemic response during the early days of Hurricane Katrina, one of the mistakes President Bush made in that crisis was his choice to fly over New Orleans rather than engage the problem on the ground. I would recommend that, in reassessing his stand on drilling, President Obama might want to consider standing on the beach; he and Secretary of the Interior Salazar should ignore concerns about the size of the presidential footprint, remove their shoes and walk slowly along the sulfurous sands of Louisiana.